Rethinking Church: What is a Pastor?

To say people are becoming disillusioned with institutional church is an understatement. People are becoming disillusioned and are leaving it in droves. From all the statistics I’ve read the reasons vary, but a large number who’ve left are leaving, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the institutional church has. As a result, many are walking away and finding more authentic community outside of its walls, myself included. They are done. Josh Packard is correct in saying,

The Dones are people who are disillusioned with church. Though they were committed to the church for years—often as lay leaders—they no longer attend. Whether because they’re dissatisfied with the structure, social message, or politics of the institutional church, they’ve decided they are better off without organized religion. Source: Meet the Dones

One thing almost every institutional church has in common with other institutional churches is a person in charge called a pastor. The pastor is typically the power person in charge, directing things. In this first post of what I’m calling Rethinking Church, we’re simply going to sort out what a pastor is. This will be the foundation for the other posts that follow in this series. I’ll be writing this series from the point of view of a former pastor with 20+ years experience pastoring various institutional churches. We’ll start by looking more closely at what scripture says about pastors because I feel one way the modern institutional church has complicated things is by making the pastor an authoritative focal point in the church, not unlike the CEO of a corporation. This top-down authority approach to doing church has been handed to us by hundreds of years of church tradition, not by any biblical mandate.

From my own experience and my conversations with others, I see at least five areas where I believe the institutional church has gotten off message to varying degrees, opening the door to a structure within the church that is crippling it and causing disillusionment in those that have left. I’m writing this series in the following order:

I strongly urge you to read these in the order written, as each one builds on the previous.

Not surprisingly, the New Testament talks about pastors. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul reminds us of the gifts God has given to his church for the specific purpose of building itself up in love. He says,

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, (Ephesians 4:11)

What’s startling is this is the only occurrence in the New Testament, outside of clear references to Jesus himself, of the word translated here by the ESV as “shepherds.” But don’t take my word for it. Do the research. Your version may read “Pastors” (NIV, NASB, KJV). I’m good with either translation. Both convey what I think is the meaning of the word. There are shepherds (pastors) within the ekklesia for the express purpose of equipping and building up the assembly in love. But this is the only time in the entire New Testament that this noun translated pastor or shepherd appears, outside of clear references to Jesus, and there’s nothing here describing anything specific regarding how that building up and equipping is to be done.

But we haven’t let that stop us. We’ve turned this one verse into a thing. We’ve institutionalized the pastor and made them into something bigger than real life – something bigger than any of us can handle, including the pastors themselves. Remember, I’m speaking from experience as one of those ex-pastors. The pastor has become the central figure in most of our western church structures. It’s been that way for a long time. We’ve provided them with special chairs to sit in, separate from the rest of us, or placed them on elevated platforms apart from the rest of us, or both. Sometimes, we even require them to live on the church property (enter, the parsonage) separated from the rest of us in the community. But thankfully, that is less common than it used to be. Communication on Sunday is one-way for the most part, from them to us. We address them using honorific titles that mark them out from the rest of us and puts even greater distance between us and them. Worship, communion, baptisms, etc. all flow through the pastor or the clerical staff under the direction of the pastor. The pastor’s under an incredible amount of pressure from both without and within. It’s unfair to both the pastor and to the rest of the assembly and in my opinion, it’s killing genuine community and it’s one reason people are leaving the institutional setting in droves. I’m speaking from both personal experience and observation.

But we didn’t get here by accident. It may surprise you to know that our journey here was intentional and it began a long time ago with Continue reading